Edward Snowden shed the light on the main purpose of mass surveillance. According to him, the purpose of mass surveillance is for the government to assert control over the population.
Snowden spoke to recent developments in the technology landscape, with special praise reserved for Whatsapp, the world’s most popular instant messaging app. The makers of the app recently decided to implement end-to-end encryption for the personal messages of its users. Snowden heralded apps like Whatsapp and Signal as tools the everyday person could use to avoid government collection of personal data.
Perhaps the most provocative discussion of the night came when Panelist Micheal Vonn, also Policy Director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, asked him about why governments pursue mass surveillance projects, even though empirical evidence has shown that they are ineffective in stopping terrorism.
Snowden argued that terrorism is used as a justification to the public for the existence of these programs. What are the true motivations of programs such as PRISM? According to Snowden they include “diplomatic manipulation, economic espionage, and social control.”
He came prepared with a litany of examples to support his controversial thesis, including the government’s attempts to track the pornographic viewing habits of “radicals” in order to discredit them later on. Snowden also noted that GCHQ, the British equivalent of the NSA, has categorized journalists as a “threat,” falling between hackers and terrorists on their scale.
Inevitably, the topic of Bill C-51 came up, now known as Canada’s official Anti-terrorism Act. Said Snowden, “Terrorism is a serious threat, but let’s not pretend that it’s an existential threat to our society.” He suggested that the purpose of such a law in Canada may be to contribute to an international database, from which intelligence agencies such as the NSA to the GCHQ could draw.
Answering a final question from the audience on whether or not citizens can trust politicians, Snowden reiterated his belief in values such as transparency and integrity within government. He noted that a society that values privacy must always allow for some risks, but that these risks are ultimately worth taking in order to preserve our personal freedom.
“The cost of democracy is uncertainty,” he said. “We won’t be safe in every circumstance, but that’s not a weakness, it’s a strength.”